At roughly 15 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest, Sanibel Island’s small size belies its rich and intriguing history, abundant flora & fauna, plentiful stretches of exquisite beaches, and the depth of the culture & hospitality of its residents.
The city incorporates the entire island, with most of the city proper at the east end of the island. After the Sanibel causeway was built to replace the ferry in May 1963, the residents asserted control over development by establishing the Sanibel Comprehensive Land Use Plan in 1974 helping to maintain a balance between development and preservation of the island’s ecology. A new, higher bridge, permitting passage without a drawbridge of tall boats and sailboats, was completed in late 2007.
Sanibel is a popular tourist destination known for its shell beaches and wildlife refuges. More than half of the island is made up of wildlife refuges, the largest being J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The Island hosts the Sanibel Historical Village and a variety of other museums and theaters, as well as many non-profit organizations like the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, C.R.O.W. the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, and the Sanibel Sea School.
Sanibel Island History
Sanibel and Captiva formed one island about 6,000 years ago. The first known humans in the area were the Calusa, who arrived about 2,500 years ago. The Calusa were a powerful Indian nation who came to dominate most of Southwest Florida through trade via their elaborate system of canals and waterways. Sanibel remained an important Calusa settlement until the collapse of their empire, soon after the arrival of the Europeans.
In 1765, the first known appearance of a harbor on Sanibel is shown on a map as Puerto de S. Nibel (the “v” and “b” being interchangeable); thus, the name may have evolved from “San Nibel”. Alternatively, the name may derive, as many believe, from “(Santa) Ybel”, which survives in the old placename “Point Ybel”, where the Sanibel Island Lighthouse is located. How it would have gotten this name, however, is a matter of conjecture. One story says it was named by Juan Ponce de León for Queen Isabella I of Castile; the island may indeed be named for this queen or the saint whose name she shares, either by Ponce de León or someone later. Another attributes the name to Roderigo Lopez, the first mate of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), after his beautiful lover Sanibel whom he had left behind in Spain. Like most of the lore surrounding Gasparilla, however, this story is apocryphal, as the above references to recognizable variants of the name predate the buccaneer’s supposed reign.
Legendary pirates’ dens aside, the first modern settlement on Sanibel (then spelled “Sanybel”) was established by the Florida Peninsular Land Company in 1832. The colony never took off and was abandoned by 1849. It was this first group that initially petitioned for a lighthouse on the island. The island was re-populated after the implementation of the Homestead Act in 1862, and again a lighthouse was petitioned. Construction on the Sanibel Island Lighthouse was completed in 1884, but the community remained small. In May 1963 a causeway linking Sanibel and Captiva to the mainland was opened, resulting in an explosion of growth. The City of Sanibel passed new restrictions on development after it was incorporated; these were challenged by developers, to no avail. Currently the only buildings on the island taller than two stories date before 1974, and there are no fast food or chain restaurants allowed on the island except a Dairy Queen and a Subway, which were on the island before the laws were enacted. A new causeway was completed in 2007; it replaced the worn out 1963 spans, which were not designed to carry heavy loads or large numbers of vehicles. The new bridge features a “flyover” span tall enough for sailboats to pass under, replacing the old bridge’s bascule drawbridge span. The original bridge was demolished and its remains were sunk into the water to create artificial reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The main town is located on the eastern end of the island. The city was formed in 1974, as a direct result of the main causeway being built in 1963 to replace the ferry, and the rampant construction and development that occurred afterward. Developers sued over the new restrictions, but the city and citizens prevailed in their quest to protect the island. The only buildings above two to three stories now on the barrier island were built during that period.
The city is on Gulf coast of Southwest Florida and is linked to the mainland by the Sanibel Causeway. A short bridge over Blind Pass links Sanibel to Captiva Island. More than half of the two islands are preserved in its natural state as wildlife refuges. Visitors can drive, walk, bike, or kayak through the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge  The island’s most famous landmark, the Sanibel Lighthouse, is located at the eastern end of the island, adjacent to the fishing pier. The main thoroughfare, Periwinkle Way, is where the majority of stores and restaurants are located, while the Gulf Drives (East, Middle, and West) play host to most of the accommodations.
The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, has also been a key player in helping to curb uncontrolled commercial growth and development on the island. Since 1967, SCCF has been dedicated to the preservation of natural resources on and around Sanibel and Captiva and has led efforts to acquire and preserve environmentally sensitive land on the islands including critical wildlife habitats, rare and unique subtropical plant communities, tidal wetlands, and freshwater wetlands along the Sanibel River.
The island’s curved shrimp-like shape forms Tarpon Bay on the north side of the island. It is linked to the mainland by the Sanibel Causeway, which runs across two small manmade islets and the Intracoastal Waterway. A short bridge links Sanibel Island to Captiva Island over Blind Pass. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel is the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to the study of shells. The Gulf-side beaches are excellent on both Sanibel and Captiva and are world-renowned for their variety of seashells, which include coquinas, scallops, whelks, sand dollars, and many other species of both shallow-water and deeper-water mollusks, primarily bivalves and gastropods. Sanibel Island is home to a significant variety of birds, including the roseate spoonbill and several nesting pairs of bald eagles. Birds can be seen on the beaches, the causeway islands, and the reserves, including J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Common sights include pelicans, herons, egrets, and anhingas, as well as the more common birds like terns, sandpipers, and seagulls.
There is a population of American alligators on Sanibel Island. A single rare American crocodile had been seen at the Wildlife Refuge for over 30 years, but she died in 2010 of unseasonably cold winters or old age. A memorial was set up at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge honoring “Wilma”, as she was known by the residents. A new crocodile was introduced in May 2010 when she was found on a private property and relocated to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Plants on the island include the native sea grape, sea oats, mangroves, and several types of palm trees. The Australian pine is an introduced species that has spread throughout the island, to some extent overpowering native vegetation and trees. Once mature, the pine blocks sunlight and drops a thick bed of pine needles that affect the soil’s pH and prevents new native growth. The ground is very soft under these pines.
Sanibel Island Wildlife
Preserving the island’s natural ecology has always been important to its citizens and visitors alike. A driving force in the preservation of the island is the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation which was founded in 1967 with a mission to “preserve natural resources and wildlife habitat on and around the islands of Sanibel and Captiva.” 1,300 acres (5.3 km2) of land on Sanibel are under the supervision of the Foundation; included in this land there is a “Marine Laboratory which actively conducts research in areas including seagrasses, mangroves, harmful algal blooms, fish populations and shellfish restoration.” Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation also has a project called RECON (River, Estuary and Coastal Observing Network) which includes a “network of eight in-water sensors that provide real-time, hourly readings of key water quality parameters.” The foundation also serves to protect the wildlife on the island and has a variety of education programs designed to instruct people about the island’s unique ecology.
The biggest wildlife refuge on the island is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Covering more than 5,200 acres (21 km2) of land, the refuge strives to ensure that these lands are “preserved, restored and maintained as a haven for indigenous and migratory wildlife as part of a nation-wide network of Refuges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service” The lands also serve to provide a home for many endangered and threatened species. Currently, the refuge provides a home for over 220 species of birds native to the island. Visitors to the refuge can walk, bike, drive, or kayak through the wildlife drive which takes you through five miles of mangrove tree forests and tidal flats, this drive is perfect for watching the island’s wildlife and looking at the island’s native vegetation. To show that preserving the wildlife really is important, the drive is closed one day every week, Friday, so that the wildlife can have a day to themselves where they can scavenge for food closer to the drive and not have to be bothered by or fearful of humans. There is also an education center which features “interactive exhibits on refuge ecosystems, the life and work of “Ding” Darling, migratory flyways, and the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
Sanibel’s famous beaches and seashells
Sanibel beaches attract visitors from all around the world, partly because of the large quantities of seashells that frequently wash up there. Many sand dollars can be found as well. One of the reasons for these large accumulations of shells is the fact that Sanibel is a barrier island which is “part of a large plateau that extends out into the Gulf of Mexico for miles. It is this plateau that acts like a shelf for seashells to gather.” Sanibel also has an “east-west orientation when most islands are north-south. Hence, the island is gifted with great sandy beaches and an abundance of shells.”
People who are lucky enough to find the elegant brown-spotted shell of a Junonia on a Sanibel beach often get their picture in the local newspapers. Junonia volutes are reasonably common living in deep water, but they only rarely wash up; a beach find of a whole shell is greatly prized.
Junonia shells can be purchased at local shell shops or can be seen on display in the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, in some of the glass display tables at the Sanibel Cafe, or at the Sanibel Shell Fair in early March.
Throughout the year, many people come to the beaches of Sanibel to gather shells. People are often seen bending down as they look for seashells, and this posture is known as the “Sanibel Stoop.” There are beaches almost all around the island. There are even beaches along the Sanibel Causeway, and these are great for fishing and windsurfing. However, beach parking on Sanibel itself is very limited, and in high season finding a convenient parking space can be a challenge.
Lighthouse Beach is named after the famous Sanibel Lighthouse, which includes a popular fishing pier and nature trails. The most secluded beach on the island is Bowman’s Beach; there are no hotels in sight and the beach has a “pristine and quiet” atmosphere.
Sanibel Island, located in southern Florida, has a climate that is “subtropical and humid” with daily high temperatures ranging from 75 °F (24 °C) in midwinter to around 90 °F (32 °C) in the summer. The months of January through April (peak tourist season on the island) have the coolest temperatures, ranging from 75 °F (24 °C) during the day to a cool 55 °F (13 °C) at night, and there is very little rainfall on the island during those months. The summer heat and humidity on the island, which has been recorded as high as 100 °F (38 °C), is cooled by the gulf seabreezes from the Gulf of Mexico, and by almost daily afternoon and evening rain showers, which are responsible for much of the island’s rainfall. June is when the Island gets most of its rain.
Sanibel Island Florida, rated #1 Family Vacation spot in the Country 2015!
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